Cleveland Park has earned a reputation as one of the best dining destinations in Washington, D.C., a reputation based on the quality and diversity of its rich cuisine.
The Cleveland Park neighborhood is home to more than a half dozen restaurants and eateries, featuring cuisine from nearly every part of the globe, including China, Thailand, India, Italy, Israel, Mexico and the U.S.
Now as the deadly coronavirus, Covid-19, sweeps across the country and the world, most Cleveland Park restaurants have managed to stay open by cutting back on hours and staff and operating as take-out and delivery establishments during the worst pandemic in over a century.
“The entire dining business is gone,” lamented Surfy Rahman, co-founder and co-owner of Indique, an Indian restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, which opened in 2002.
Restaurants in Cleveland Park like Indique that were brimming with patrons a month ago now sit virtually empty, manned by skeleton crews and entirely dependent on take-out and deliveries for business, a common scenario for restaurants throughout the United States.
In mid-March, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered all bars and restaurants in the District closed to dining and drinking in response to Covid-19. At the same time, the Mayor’s office is allowing restaurants to operate as take-out and delivery businesses. Restaurant owners in Cleveland Park report that their revenues have fallen precipitously in recent weeks, dropping from 40 to 90%.
Rahman said the delivery side of his business poses an especially difficult dilemma because delivery services charge as much as 30% off the top, leaving little room for profit. This was workable when the restaurant could rely on its dine-in business to offset the cost of deliveries.
Fortunately, many of Indique’s patrons are now ordering and picking up their food directly from the restaurant, bypassing the need for deliveries.
Customers pick up their food at the front of the restaurant or wait outside while an employee hands them a bag with their order.
Other restaurants have taken similar precautions to minimize human contact.
“We now cut pizzas as soon as they come out of the oven and put them in a box,” said Joe McCarthy, one of four owners of Tino’s Pizzeria, which opened in September. “We carry (the boxes) to a station and hand them to a guest.”
Tino’s also has a freestanding hand sanitizer station outside of the restaurant’s front doors for customers.
When McCarthy and his partners opened in September, they set up an outside dining area in front of the restaurant. They were preparing to re-open the outside area in March with new furniture before the Mayor closed the city’s restaurants to dining.
“We have permits for 14 seats outside,” said McCarthy, who owns Tino’s with his wife, Lauren and another couple, Logan and Maria Griffith. “I was ready to purchase new tables and chairs and a few umbrellas to enhance the outdoor dining environment.”
The outdoor seating would have expanded the restaurant’s capacity by a third, allowing the business to capitalize on the months of March, April, May and June, traditionally the busiest for Cleveland Park restaurants thanks to warm, spring weather and traffic from the nearby zoo.
With the pandemic, “people are confused and people are scared,” said Mark Aden, owner of Byblos Deli, a restaurant specializing in Mediterranean dishes.
“They listen to the news,” said Aden, whose restaurant has been a part of Cleveland Park since 1993. “They want to do the right thing.”
As a result, many Cleveland Park residents are staying home, preferring to cook at home.
Streets Market, for example, has experienced a dramatic increase in the sales of fruit, frozen vegetables, meat, and pasta as well as soda, wine and beer, strong indicators that people are staying and cooking more at home, said Charles Miller, manager of the grocery store.
Baked goods, he said, “are flying off the shelves,” another indicator that people are staying indoors, commented Miller, who has been a manager in the specialty food business and a business owner for over 40 years.
Yes! Organic Market, located next to Streets Market on Connecticut Avenue, has also experienced a marked increase in the sales of baking flour, frozen vegetables, produce and fruit.
More customers are now ordering groceries over the phone, and Yes! Organic is delivering the groceries or customers are picking their orders up curbside, said a store manager. (Streets Market and Yes! Organic both provide delivery service).
Streets Market has become a gathering place for local residents who come in to shop and socialize while maintaining a safe distance of six feet. There are, in fact, stickers on the floor of the cashiers’ lines in Streets Market and Yes Organic, spaced six feet apart to allow for safe social distancing while waiting in line.
Restaurants and other businesses in Cleveland Park that have managed to remain open say they have stayed open, in part, to serve and give back to the community.
“We are tremendously blessed – after only nine months of business – to have loyal customers who have enjoyed us being here,” said McCarthy. “They have continued to try and patronize us during this crisis.”
Local patrons drop by on a regular basis, offering words of encouragement such as, “We are so appreciative you are here. We hope you make it,” says McCarthy. “That makes us feel really good and blessed to be a part of the community.”
Steakhouse Medium Rare is supporting the community by providing free meals to quarantined seniors aged 70 and above. Together with its Arlington and Bethesda locations, the business has provided more than 3,000 free meals to seniors and 1,000 to first responders during the past several weeks, prompting CNN, Fox and the NBC affiliate, Channel 4, to feature the initiative on their broadcasts, said Paulos Girma, general manager of the Cleveland Park restaurant. The three Medium Rare establishments also have donated more than 1,000 free meals to first responders in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
Elderly residents or their children can call or email to request the free meals, and Medium Rare dispatches a volunteer driver to deliver the food. This helps the elderly as well their children, who are afraid to visit their parents because of fears of giving them Covid-19.
The free meals “brightens everyone’s day,” said Girma.
Keeping Brunch Alive
Medium Rare, like many other restaurants in Cleveland Park, typically has a bustling and busy weekend brunch. The restaurant has sought to keep remnants of its brunch alive by including a bottle of sparkling wine and a container of orange juice for every patron who pays for two or more brunch orders at a time.
The question of whether restaurants can remain viable in the era of Covid-19 varies depending on the type of restaurant. McCarthy said, for example, that Tino’s business is down 40-50% overall, but Saturday nights “have remained pretty solid.”
Coppi’s Organic Restaurant specializes in pizzas and pastas as well as other foods and prides itself on only using local and organic ingredients. The restaurant relies heavily on its bar and dining for revenues. Without that business, the establishment can survive only “for a few months – if we are lucky,” said Blanca Pacheco, who co-owns Coppi’s with her brother, Carlos Amaya, the restaurant’s executive chief.
“We are fighters,” said Pacheco. “We are going to fight for as long as we can, and to try and keep going as long as we can.”
Editor’s Note: Gift cards are a great way to help restaurants and other businesses in the Cleveland Park area during these difficult days. With gift cards, establishments receive a quick infusion of funds and the customer has the option of spending the gift card at his or her leisure, creating a win-win situation for all, business owners tell us.